Dear Liz: We were told to buy long-term care insurance early because waiting too long would make it more expensive and perhaps unavailable. I bought mine when I was 55. At the time, it was $2,400 a year. Unfortunately, the premiums just kept going up. I am now 77, and the premium this year was $4,470. The letter informing me of this increase said that next year it will go up 6% to $4,738, and 6% again the following year to $5,022. It’s very clear to me that buying the insurance early was definitely not an advantage. The insurer will obviously keep raising the premium at will. Since I am, like most people my age, on a fixed income, the time will come when I simply cannot afford these premiums. I will then lose the insurance plus all I have paid into it all these years. People should be told that the premiums will continue to rise, and that the time may come when the cost is beyond what anyone on a fixed income can afford.
Answer: Many people are in the same unfortunate situation. They purchased policies because they thought it was the prudent thing to do, only to face the possibility of losing coverage as premiums continued to rise.
Companies that offered long-term care insurance starting in the 1980s and 1990s discovered they didn’t price the coverage accurately. Far fewer people dropped their policies than expected, while the costs of long-term care increased more than anticipated. Many insurers stopped offering the coverage, and massive premium increases were the norm for a while.
Insurers can’t raise premiums “at will,” by the way. The increases must be approved by regulators, who weigh the effects on customers against the possibility an insurer might go under and be unable to pay anyone.
The companies still selling long-term care coverage now offer less generous policies that probably won’t require huge premium increases. Still, many financial planners advise their clients who are buying coverage now to expect their premiums to increase 50% to 100% over their lifetimes.
It’s important to keep in mind that insurance is not like an investment or a savings account. You don’t buy homeowners insurance hoping your house will burn down someday so that you can get your money back. You buy it to protect your finances against catastrophic loss. So it’s not as if you received nothing in return for your long-term care premiums: You were protected against a potentially catastrophic cost that — fortunately — didn’t happen.
That doesn’t mean you were wrong to expect your premiums to remain affordable. Given your current reality, though, you’ll need to decide if you want to risk dropping coverage entirely or if reducing coverage might be an option. Many people in your situation have opted for longer waiting periods, lower inflation adjustments or a reduced benefit period to keep premiums affordable.
Don’t keep a mortgage just for the tax deduction
Dear Liz: Does the new tax law, with its increased standard deduction, change the calculus of maintaining my mortgage? I owe about $250,000 at 3.25% on a 30-year mortgage. I no longer itemize, so I don’t get the benefit of the tax deduction for the interest. My payments are about $1,500 a month, but I could easily pay it off.
Answer: It never made much sense to keep a mortgage just for the tax deduction. The tax savings offset only a portion of the interest you pay. (If you’re in a 33% combined state and federal tax bracket, for example, you’d get at most 33 cents back for every $1 in mortgage interest you paid.)
A more compelling reason to keep a mortgage would be if you were able to get a better return on your money by investing it, or if you didn’t want to have a big chunk of your wealth tied up in a single, illiquid asset.
Liz Weston, Certified Financial Planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at asklizweston.com.